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One of the most significant social movements in Melbourne for much of its history, the trade union movement, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and associated organisations have played a prominent role in the economic, political and civic life of the city.

From the 1840s skilled workers, such as carpenters and printers, formed benefit societies and trade unions to provide mutual protection against the insecurities of wage labour and to bargain collectively over pay and conditions. During the 1850s gold rush, labour shortages and a building boom allowed construction workers to press their claims for shorter working hours. Led by the Stonemasons' Society, workers on the University of Melbourne and Parliament House sites in 1856 won an eight-hour day. During the campaign they established a Trades Hall Committee, received a Crown land grant of one acre (0.4 ha) at the corner of Victoria and Lygon streets in 1858 and erected the first Trades Hall and Literary Institute building in 1859 to house the newly named Trades Hall Council (THC). The current cluster of buildings was erected between 1875 and the 1960s. A memorial column topped with 888 opposite the Trades Hall proclaims the 1856 objective of eight hours labour, eight hours recreation and eight hours rest, symbolising the workers' claim to be treated as citizens, not merely industrial 'operatives'. The leading activists in this movement are named in an honour roll above the stairwell in the Melbourne Trades Hall. An annual Labour Day procession featuring trade union floats was held until 1951, supplanted a few years later by the Moomba Festival. Despite attempts to revive annual celebrations, no significant events are likely until the 150th anniversary of the eight-hour day in 2006.

Charles Jardine Don, a stonemason who worked on the Parliament building, was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1859 to represent the people of Collingwood, presaging a later link between industrial and political labour. During the 1860s and 1870s the union movement grew steadily, firstly among skilled craft workers and later the semi-skilled trades, with a comparable expansion of union-related benefit societies which, for a small subscription fee, provided health, unemployment and death benefits for members and their families. Unions were also involved in many of Melbourne's public benevolent institutions. Some are listed in the Victoria Street foyer of Trades Hall. The THC occasionally became involved in campaigns that linked industrial and social issues, such as the anti-sweating campaign that culminated in the 1882 Tailoresses' Strike and a greater awareness of women's role in trade unions.

Trade union growth was sharply reversed when the investment and land boom collapsed in the late 1880s and a series of bitter strikes divided the community as the economy plunged into a deep depression. The Melbourne Trades Hall Council and maritime workers were at the centre of the 1890 Maritime Strike. The union claim to bargain collectively was resisted by employers' demand for individual 'freedom of contract'. Despite Judge George Higinbotham's support for the workers when the employers refused to negotiate, the unions were soundly defeated. Membership collapsed amid widespread unemployment and readily available 'scab' labour throughout Victoria. The depression and the strikes weakened workers' political attachment to Melbourne's distinctive form of protectionist social liberalism. The estrangement was signified in the progression through the Progressive Political League (1891-94), the United Labor and Liberal Party of Victoria (1894-96), the United Labor Party (1896-1901) to the Political Labor Council of Victoria in 1901 which became a State branch of the newly formed ALP. The separation was clear after the 1903 railway strike and the divorce was final after the 1916 split over conscription.

While the unions slowly rebuilt their membership, both industrial and political labour argued for a system of conciliation and arbitration to settle industrial disputes. Although wages boards, comprising worker and employer representatives with an independent chair, operated in some trades, the new Commonwealth Constitution offered the best hope, with its provision for arbitration. When the Commonwealth Parliament passed the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904, which set up the Arbitration Court and initiated a system of compulsory judicial arbitration of industrial disputes that extended beyond the boundaries of any one State, the prospects improved for unionists. Although it came too late for Victorian railway workers who were crushed by a resolute State Government in a bitterly fought strike in 1903, the system established a 'new province for law and order' in the labour market. If they could be registered in the Commonwealth jurisdiction, unions became formally recognised entities and parties to legally enforceable awards which guaranteed wages and conditions. The court's landmark Harvester Judgment of 1907, despite being overturned on appeal, set wage-fixing principles based on a worker's 'living wage' rather than the 'capacity of industry to pay'. The prospect of getting such an award greatly enhanced unions' capacity to recruit members and encouraged them to register with the Melbourne-based court. Throughout the 20th century the court and subsequent Industrial Relations Commission grew from one judge to more than 60 members and has played a central role in setting the wages and conditions of workers. Despite a diminished role since 1996, the Commission continues to adjudicate on industrial issues from its headquarters in Nauru House.

As Melbourne was the centre of Australian manufacturing industry, the location of the Arbitration Court and the home of the Commonwealth Parliament until 1927, many unions had both their State and federal offices in or near the Trades Hall. The Labor Party's offices were also in the building. In formal organisational terms, Melbourne was the geographical centre of Australian labour for the first quarter of the 20th century. After sporadic attempts, dating from the 1870s, to establish a national trade union organisation, the Australasian Council of Trade Unions was formed in 1927 as a peak council with offices in the Melbourne Trades Hall. Initially a weak body that co-ordinated periodic congresses of national unions and regional labour councils, it steadily grew in strength and influence. It became the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in 1947. After 40 years of mutual suspicion and hostility, in 1967 the large, rural-based Australian Workers' Union joined. In 1979 it expanded beyond its blue-collar constituency to incorporate ACSPA, the council of white-collar, private sector unions and in 1981 CAGEO, the federation of white-collar, public sector unions. It has played a leading role in arguing cases for national awards before the Arbitration Commission, has co-ordinated major campaigns on issues such as equal pay, the penal provisions in the Arbitration Act and standard working hours. From its headquarters in Swanston Street, the ACTU is now addressing major challenges that include a hostile legislative regime, a rise in precarious employment and declining union density in the labour market. Many ACTU leaders have built a power base in Melbourne and gone on to senior positions in the Labor Party. They include Bob Hawke who was simultaneously President of the ACTU and the federal ALP and, subsequently, Prime Minister, Simon Crean, Leader of the Federal Opposition and Martin Ferguson, a Labor frontbencher. In fact, six of the 18 Federal ALP leaders have been either Melbourne-based or had direct associations with Victorian Labor. Frank Tudor, James Scullin, Arthur Calwell, Bob Hawke and Simon Crean all represented seats in Melbourne. John Curtin, born in Creswick, spent his formative years in Melbourne and played football for Brunswick.

Political Labor in Melbourne has an uneven history. Although there were five federal Labor governments sitting in Melbourne before the parliament moved to Canberra in 1927 (Watson 1904; Fisher 1908-09, 1910-13, 1914-15; and Hughes 1915-16) they were not based on substantial electoral support in Victoria. In the last quarter of the 20th century, however, Victorian voters helped sustain the Whitlam (1972-75) and the Hawke/Keating (1983-96), Labor governments. For much of the 20th century the peculiar class and electoral geography of Melbourne isolated Labor support in the inner, northern and western suburbs. Despite a significant minority vote in rural and regional Victoria, a malapportioned electoral system minimised Labor representation in country seats. The sprawling east and south-east has tended to support more conservative parties. This has not only limited Labor's success at State elections, it has encouraged some distinctive local political cultures in suburbs like Collingwood, Richmond, Brunswick and Port Melbourne. Before 1982 Labor governments were rare in Victoria (Elmslie, December 1913; Prendergast, July-November 1924; Hogan, 1927-28, 1929-32; and Cain, September 1943, 1945-47, 1952-55 and March-June 1955). Riven by bitter factionalism, much of it stemming from the Catholic faction split in 1955, Labor was out of office in Victoria until Cain's son, John, led the ALP to victory in 1982. The Catholic-influenced Democratic Labor Party's hostility to the ALP was instrumental in keeping Labor out of office in the Commonwealth and State parliaments between 1955 and 1972. Despite some substantial achievements, the Cain and Kirner governments of 1982-92 were overcome by economic recession. The Bracks Government, in a minority after the 1999 election but with an historic majority in both Houses after the 2002 election, came to symbolise a more cautious, pragmatic style of Labor politics in Melbourne.

Despite the ALP's modest political record in Melbourne, labour and associated social movements have played a significant part in the civic life of the city. It was from the Trades Hall that Labor Party members and trade unionists joined with anti-war and some feminist groups to oppose Hughes' conscription referenda in 1916-17. The Unemployed Workers' Movement, largely a Communist Party front organisation, formed alliances with some unions to campaign against state and federal Labor governments in the early 1930s. The Movement Against War and Fascism in the mid-1930s drew substantial support from the overlapping networks of the labour left and pacifist left liberals in Melbourne. Campaigns against capital punishment, for nuclear disarmament and, most significantly, against Australia's participation in the Vietnam War drew on the political commitment and organisational infrastructure of industrial and political labour in Melbourne. Without it, prominent Labor activists such as Jim Cairns could not have organised the Moratorium marches and succeeded in the way they did to change public attitudes to the conflict. In more recent campaigns on the effects of globalisation, environmental issues and refugee rights, labour people and their organisations have been energetic and effective players in the elaborate, interconnected network of social activism in the city. In this way, labour has been more than a set of discrete institutions. It has often energised the culture of civic engagement that is such a central part of Melbourne's character as a city.

Peter Love